What the Surveys Don’t (And Can’t) Say About the Rise of the “Spiritual But Not Religious”

It all begins with “survey says….”

The pollsters now regularly tell us that religion is on the decline and commentators can’t say enough about the so called, “Spiritual, but not Religious” (or SBNR)—the now common moniker for many (but not all) of the religiously unaffiliated.

But analysts often misunderstand what the surveys actually tell us. Some overplay their hand and try to predict the future. Others fail to acknowledge that different surveys measure slightly different categories: “no preference,” “nothing in particular” and “spiritual but not religious” can’t easily be lumped together.

And yet others actually underplay the research. For instance, this past Friday, the NY Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer wrote about four new books on the SBNR. His final takeaway?

At the very least, we might conclude that “spiritual but not religious”isn’t necessarily vague or wishy-washy. It’s not nothing, although it may risk being everything.

Really? Everything? It’s an awkward ending to an otherwise informative piece. But perhaps Oppenheimer didn’t get the whole story.

While many continue to speculate what the survey trends might mean for the future of American religion, sociologist Nancy Ammerman has recognized the limits of the surveys and done her own research.

She asked a diverse group of ninety-five Americans about the role of religion and spirituality in their everyday lives, letting those stories count as much as any checkbox. Whenever the difficult issue of definitions came up, the research team turned the question back on the participants and allowed them to speak about spirituality and religion in their own terms.

As it turns out, it is possible to map out and thematize the way Americans talk when they talk about spirituality and religion. And it certainly is not “everything.” In her recent book, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life (Oxford, 2014), Ammerman lays out exactly this kind of map.

It turns out when Americans talk about “spirituality” they refer to religious traditions, to morality and living a virtuous life. At times they link the term to God or the spiritual world. At other times it refers to particular practices and rituals, to mystery or transcendence, meaning-making and beliefs.

By setting aside the typical categories academic researchers use when studying contemporary religion, Ammerman and her team document the complex ways religion shows up in a wide range of domains: in communities and conversations, in homes, at work and in public life, and not surprisingly around matters of health, illness and death.

This research qualifies what we have learned from surveys like the Pew Forum’s 2012 study. For example it suggests that “spiritual but not religious” is not so much an empirical category as it is political rhetoric. As Ammerman writes in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion,

“The ‘religion’ being rejected turns out to be quite unlike the religion being practiced and described by those affiliated with religious institutions. Likewise, the ‘spirituality’ being endorsed as an alternative is at least as widely practiced by those same religious people as it is by the people drawing a moral boundary against them.”

Or in other words: pollsters beware. It’s easy to proclaim the decline of religion, or the ascendance of the “everything” implied in a new all-encompassing spirituality, but American religion is made up of more than the language we use to define it.


  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    I’d be interested to know how representative those 95 people are of America as a whole. It appears as if the author is proclaiming religious belief to be a sort of continuum or bell curve.

  • Timothy Snyder says:

    Thanks for your comment,DKeane123. While not representative by the standards required for statistically generalization, the sample does mimic national representation. I’ve attached a table here that compares Ammerman’s 95 to a national sample. You’ll see it’s quite the diverse group. Her book has more details about how they recruited the sample if that interests you. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by belief on a continuum but the study’s primary concern is where religion (beliefs, practices, narratives, etc.) show up in everyday life.

  • adfuller03@gmail.com' Aaron Fuller says:

    Tim, I think what you’re suggesting here is that conclusions from polls need not be so narrow and reductive. But the question still remains unanswered, “What do we make of the disconnect between the wide range of spirituality that exists in America?” Because the study you highlight suggests that spirituality is a pieced and borrowed thing that is about personal discretion and choice. That sort of makes church expressions that emphasize the need for community and love of neighbor…and even an incarnational God – irrelevant.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    How about not religious, but not spiritual? If you are not religious, spiritual can be a kind of a trap. What does it mean? Why? Is it just an excuse, or something expected?

    Is spiritual but not religious a stepping stone from the past to the future? Is it a walk on the slippery rocks? Is it better than a lie in the fog?

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    I think perhaps “spirituality” is built into most humans. It is that feeling you get when gazing at a magnificent sunset, or standing on the beach, or hearing a soaring piece of music. It is feeling large and small at the same time, feeling transcended and transcendent all at once.

    You don’t need to adhere to a religion to feel this way, although being religious doesn’t prevent it for most people. Religious people feel connected to gods, non-religious people feel connected to nature, other people, or just feel outside themselves in a good way.

    I hope it is the stepping stone to a future without the need for gods and religion, where we can acknowledge the great “mysteries” without needing a god to explain them.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    While I agree with your definition of “spiritual,” it is in general such a mushy and poorly-defined term can be used to mean just about anything. Those who are materialists from both a methodological and ontological perspective find the term “spiritual” objectionable because it carries supernatural overtones to many people.

  • I am no fan of statistics, never have been despite years of study in business, politics, and theology. I find that studies often fail to consider context or linguistic differences that can lead to inaccurate results despite the researchers’ best efforts. It would appear that Ammerman attempts to add that dimension to her study as a means of gaining clarification on the differences between being spiritual and being religious.

    There is another article today about the gap between Church of England hierarchy and members’ actual beliefs. It would seem to identify this very problem quite clearly – church leaders have adopted a stance that is driving out otherwise religious members. We have had a search for meaning in God’s words, if you will, for decades or perhaps centuries, and today we have a generation that is finding that the political fervor that overtook the churches in the 1970s, the Prosperity Gospel and Dominion Gospel preachings that gave rise to the Religious Right in the 1980s, and the Reconstructionist Gospel of the 1990s, are not reflective of any of the religious writings that form the basis for any religion. Yet this same generation feels a connection with something greater than themselves and they are seeking a spiritual answer outside of organized religion, especially established Christian churches which seem to have deviated so far from the teachings of Christ.

    Over the years of watching people leave organized religion behind in search of better answers to life’s questions, I have wondered if people would ever find a religion that would satisfy their quest for knowledge of God or Allah or the Universe. I have found over 62 years that the search is ongoing, even among those of us who have found strength in our belief in a loving God. The organized religions of today are failing, not because they do not try to help parishioners, but because they have forgotten to include God in their preaching and in their lifestyles. Children are incredibly astute, and they absorb all that their surroundings have to offer them. That they see the hypocrisy of those who are religious leaders between their words and their actions is not surprising.

    When young people who leave the church say that they are “spiritual, but not religious”, they are telling us that they believe in God or something greater than themselves, but that they do not embrace the religious life or doctrines that they see as hypocritical. They sense something far greater than any words of man, and they see without blinders or rose-colored glasses the realities of this world every day. They seek God, not man’s religion, and if the survey takers and researchers cannot understand that, then they are truly asking the wrong questions, not of the “spiritual, but not religious”, but of themselves. Faith is not something that is quantifiable, and anyone who thinks that they can do so is on a fool’s errand.

    Rev. Devon J. Noll
    New Word Universal Fellowship Church

  • Timothy Snyder says:

    Hi Aaron, good to see you over here. You raise a good question about how these differing ways of speaking about (but also practicing and not practicing) spirituality are related and I appreciate your wondering about what implications that has for religious communities. What’s interesting is that the researchers also wondered that. I didn’t have space to address that follow up in my original but one answer can be found in the second part of the book’s title Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes. Ammerman calls them “circles of companions who tell each other sacred stories.” And the same applies to those who narrate the world with explicit absence or resistance to “religion” and “spirituality.” There’s much more I could say about that, write to me if you’re interested in continuing the conversation [tksnyder (at) bu (dot) edu]. Of course the book itself has a much more in depth consideration of this too.

  • Timothy Snyder says:

    Hi Rev. Noll, Yes I think that might be one way to understand “spiritual but not religious” among young people who are intentionally leaving the church. There are also ways the moniker is used by those who ARE staying in churches. The challenge to understanding what any particular person means by the phrase depends, of course, on what they mean by “religion” and “spiritual.” And when it comes to understanding that, it’s best to ask and let their own definitions speak. It can also be helpful to listen broadly to the stories they tell about their lives, their families, their work, their play. These stories often give more clues than even their definitions do. That’s one of the take aways of this research.

  • Timothy Snyder says:

    It’s interesting that these researchers actually found that sometimes it was mushy, other times quite concrete. When at first it does seem quite vague it often helps to learn more by asking, “do you have a story about that, a story about when you had a spiritual experience or when you noticed it was a spiritual thing?” This kind of indirect approach can really help clarify what we mean.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Do you have a story of a spiritual experience?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Mixing those feelings with ancient myth can be dangerous because some people will start taking it seriously.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Is one of the characteristics of spirituality that you can’t really ever get anywhere with it because if you could, it would become scientific?

  • Timothy Snyder says:

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “become scientific”? Care to elaborate?

  • Timothy Snyder says:

    Oh you mean like me personally?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Spirituality is pretty speculative, people believe what is commonly said. If any of it was based on actual truth, isn’t that what science is about? If something is true, you believe it because it is true. If something is not true, then people believe it because it is religious. (or maybe spiritual)

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Yes. If you ask people about their story, then maybe you have a story as well.

  • Timothy Snyder says:

    So one of the take aways from this research is that spirituality is not nearly as speculative as many of us once thought.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Yes, but I don’t think anyone understands what spirituality is, so it might not matter.

    John Lennon said God is a concept by which we measure painful stuff. That might be the highest level of spiritual understanding.

  • Timothy Snyder says:

    Yes, I have lots of stories myself. At times I’ve even written those stories down to share. If you’re interested I can point you in that direction. (But just to be clear, I personally was not on the research team I talk about in this article.)

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    I am not sure that matters. We have to go by what you wrote, and not the research team you wrote about.

    No pressure, but maybe some time you can include a story in what you write here, when nobody is expecting it.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    Some things DO fall outside the realm of method and science. Emotions, thoughts, etc. Sure, we can quantify them by means of brain scans, but they are more qualitative than quantitative.

    Even a devout atheist can have a “spiritual experience”. It needn’t be “supernatural”, because it really isn’t. It is a manifestation of our own consciousness. People who have had peyote experiences have often come away from them with a much greater appreciation for the fabric of life, whether or not they are religious.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    I didn’t advocate doing so. There is no need to, because those moments are sort of a time and reality warp where we exist independent of both for a brief period. They are like finding a nugget of gold when they occur.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    That’s fine, but when others join the gold rush there is no way to predict what will happen, other than to be sure they will carry things too far.

  • leighannepetersen@gmail.com' Leigh Anne P says:

    Spirituality to me is those connections of whatever type and scope that effect and or define our deepest values and meanings for life. Thus, religion is a possible part of the mix, but not necessarily. Family, nature, rituals, even addictions can affect our deepest values and meanings for life. Spiritual but not religious simply have connections other than religion that guide them.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    There really can’t be a “gold rush”. These moments are rare, unpredictable, and very individual.

    The only way there can be any “religion” made of it is if the one who experiences the moment tries to make something of it that it is not. I.e., tries to say they have had a “revelation”. While they may have, indeed, it is for them, not for the world. But, yes, there is a risk of someone doing that. But they could see the prophet in a piece of toast, or in a slice of tomato.

    Religion is one attempt to control behavior from a moralistic viewpoint. I don’t agree with it, but it will probably never completely go away.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    At least as long as RD is here we can try to understand it.

  • Timothy Snyder says:

    Sure, and many of them actually had connections exactly like the ones you described: with meaning, nature, rituals.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    Actually, I think it’s more like a Boolean variable. You’re either a believer or you’re not.

  • dkeane123@comcast.net' DKeane123 says:

    I agree generally, but I was thinking a bit more about the smaller subset within religious belief.

  • spanishgum@gmail.com' Adam says:

    I agree that as science advances, it will continue to crowd religion.
    However I believe a distinction between spirituality and science will remain. Spirituality is an experience that happens at the personal level, and then transcends to that of the collective group. To me, it is introspect as well as connection to my surroundings.

    While science will grow and continue to find explanation in these phenomenon, it will not provide the world with the sense of wonder (although certainly arguable) and connection that brings us all together spirituality.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The thing that brings people together spiritually is the chance to believe things they like, like going to heaven when you die. It would be hard for a spiritual sense of wonder to compete with a scientific sense of wonder because the science is based on truth.

  • spanishgum@gmail.com' Adam says:

    Yes but science has not yet (and may not ever) delivered truth of everything. It is a progression, a journey. Perhaps an infinite one; who’s to say? Spirituality fills in these open gaps and allows exploration into the metaphysical realm, that which science can only journey so far.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    But spirituality fills them with what is essentially nothing. Science has learned a lot, but there is still much that science doesn’t know. Religion pretends to know those things through their link to the wisdom of God. I’m skeptical.

  • tamebabyparrots@yahoo.com' FireInSpace says:

    Emotions and thoughts don’t lie outside the realm of science, just FYI. Signed, a professional who works in emotions and thoughts.

  • crzylmy@gmail.com' Smknws says:

    What is the difference between religious and
    spiritual ?

    Without religion I would never have known the
    existence of God

    Now that I know God in a personal way I don’t
    need religion

    ..and believe me he is nothing like the one in
    the Bible.

    Yes it is possible to ask God questions , but
    most people don’t wait for an answer ,

    find a quiet place and have a conversation with

    Don’t laugh Neil Walsh is a rich man from the
    sale of his book Conversations with God.

    I don’t have a good memory but I don’t remember
    the Vatican banning his book.

    This of course is my own opinion.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    Are you a psychologist/sociologist? If so, I do not consider – and neither do many scientists – those fields to be “science” in the same way that, for example, neurology is. Not to diminish the value of social sciences at all, but they do not deal in the kind of quantifiable data/facts that the hard sciences do. Much social science research involves subjective measurement/information gathering.

    At this point in time, I think there is a lot of hard data obtained by measuring brain activity. But still, there is a lot we don’t know about why a certain neuron firing creates a certain kind of thought. Maybe someday we will, but that idea is a bit off-putting, since we humans have a very bad track record when it comes to misusing scientific discoveries to oppress others.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    My point is that the word “spiritual” is equivocal. One can define it as a feeling of awe, which is perfectly natural. However, it derives from the word spirit, which can also refer to a supernatural entity – a consciousness free from and independent of a material substrate. This was the sense that the term was used in the early twentieth century for spiritualism and spiritualists.
    When someone talks about “spiritual but not religious,” it is entirely unclear as to what is meant.

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